Goethe Films: Margarethe & Barbara. Films reviewed: Hannah Arendt, Rosa Luxemburg, Marianne & Juliane

Posted in 1910s, 1960s, 1970s, Germany, melodrama, Movies, Nazi, Terrorism, WWI, WWII by CulturalMining.com on September 29, 2017

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Margarethe von Trotta is a leading German director and one of the only women in the New German Cinema (Neuer Deutscher Film) of the 60s, 70s and 80s. She co-wrote and co-directed (with Volker Schlöndorff) the first commercially successful film of that movement – The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Though her films are about dynamic women and told from a female point of view, von Trotta has distanced herself from some schools of feminist cinema. She creates movies about women, but not “Frauenfilm” (women’s movies).

She started her career as an actress, so she knows how to draw amazing performance from her actors. And she has a decades-long working relationship with one actor in particular: Barbara Sukowa.

Barbara Sukowa is a reknowned actor with a beautiful, square face that she completely transforms to match each character she portrays. She can play a role as both passionate and restrained, her emotions churning just beneath the surface.

This week I’m looking at three great films (based on historical figures) directed by Von Trotta and starring Sukowa. They’re part of a special series called Goethe Films: Margarethe and Barbara playing on the 3rd, 5th and 12th of October at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. There’s a melodrama about a revolutionary, a family drama about a terrorist and her sister, and an intellectual drama about a journalist-philosopher.

Hannah Arendt (2012)

It’s the 1960s in New York city. Hannah Arendt (Sukowa) is German-born writer and philosopher who is part of the intellectual scene in that city. She studied philosophy under Heidegger – and was his lover — but when the Nazis came to power she was stripped of her credentials as a Jew, while he embraced Nazism. She fled to France and later the US. Now she is offered a strange assignment by The New Yorker magazine – to cover the upcoming trial in Jerusalem of the notorious Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was one of the main architects of the Holocaust and the murderer of millions. He testifies in a glass booth. Eichmann denies everything and paints himself as a gentle bureaucrat.

But Arendt’s description of Eichmann’s behaviour as the Banality of Evil — that of an ordinary-looking man who killed so many – meets with widespread shock and criticism, even among her friends and colleagues. Her writings on totalitarianism, guilt and responsibility reverberate around the world.

Hannah Arendt is a beautiful and magisterial depiction of a major intellectual figure as iconoclast, a hero fighting the tides. It’s also a biopic, given to long pauses of contemplation. And one that somehow seems kinder to Heidegger than to Arendt’s critics in academia.

Rosa Luxemburg (1986)

It’s 1900, the start of a century of change. Revolution is brewing in Russia and Germany is close behind. Rosa Luxemburg (Sukowa) is an educated, Polish-Jewish woman who walks with a limp. She is also a social democratic revolutionary, a firebrand who writes articles and gives passionate speeches. Now she lives in Berlin after being jailed and nearly executed in Warsaw.

She’s in a tempestuous relationshio with her sometime lover and fellow revolutionary Leo Jogisches (Daniel Olbrychski). But when she discovers he is having an affair, she begins a relationship with a friend’s adult son. And, with Karl Liebknecht, she founds the Red Flag newspaper and the Spartacus party, a Marxist (but not Leninist) Socialist party.

She calls for a massive strike to resist the war but nationalism is on the rise. Bloody Rosa is arrested and jailed during WWI as a political prisoner. Will her political dreams ever be realized, or will nationalism prevail?

Rosa Luxemburg is a fascinating historical biopic, told in a melodramatic style. There are as many scenes of her shouting to cheering crowds as there are of her gardening in prison or writing letters. A costume drama, this captures nineteenth-century romanticism in its music, poetry and idealism.

Marianne & Juliane (1981) Die bleierne Zeit

It’s the 1970s. Juliane (Jutta Lampe) is a journalist who writes for a feminist magazine. She grew up in a large family with a bible-thumping father, a conservative minister. Her sister Marianne (Sukowa) looked up to her as a teenager. Julianne was the rebel. She smoked, talked back to her teacher, wore pants – not a skirt! – and caused a furor when she danced alone to a Vienna waltz ata high school dance. The two are shattered by the documentaries they see in school on Nazi mass murder, and vow they will never let it happen again. But the two have taken different paths and their roles have changed.

Marianne is now a brash, self-centred woman who rejects concepts like marriage, family and money. She doesn’t ask for things; she demands them. She’s a member of the dreaded Red Army Faction — a terrorist group that sets off bombs and hijacks planes — and is on the run from police. She also has a young son, Jan, but can’t take care of him. When she is caught by the police, it’s up to Juliane to visit her in prison to keep her sane and alive. She smuggles in notes hidden in tissues, and passes on her messages. Can Juliane’s marriage and job — and Marrianne’s son — survive the prison sentence and the widespread public hatred of the crimes she committed?

Although this is a fictional drama, it’s based on RAF member Gudrun Ensslin and her journalist sister. This powerful drama is not a historical biopic; it was made just a few years after the events it portrays.

All three films encorporate historical black-and-white film footage and prison scenes, about heroes (and villains like Eichman)  encaged and restrained. Together, these three films provide a century-long view of modern Germany through the eyes of three women.

Marianne and Juliane, Hannah Arendt, and Rosa Luxemburg are all playing next week on the big screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto — $10 per ticket — with Barbara Sukowa introducing Marianne and Juliane. Go to Goethe Toronto for details.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Fassbinder’s Women. Films reviewed: The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, Veronika Voss

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, 1970s, 1980s, Drama, Germany, Movies, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 18, 2016

explore_152id_002_originalHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

The postwar renaissance of Germany’s once great cinema almost didn’t happen. It wasn’t until the 1970s that German movies came into their own. And Rainer Werner Fassbinder — along with Herzog, Wenders, Schlöndorf and von Trotta — was key to this Neue Kino. Born near Munich at the end of WWII, Fassbinder lived his entire life in Bavaria. Between 1966 and 1982, he created a phenomenal 42 feature films, along with countless stage plays and the epic TV miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz. Between these projects he led a wild personal life filled with sex, drugs and political controversy. Married twice, he also had at least two long-term male lovers, while consuming huge quantities of cocaine.

Throughout, he attempted to document Germany’s fass_24colcultural history, as the country arose from devastating defeat to become the economic juggernaut it is today. And in many of these films Germany is a woman. His female character try to survive economically, even though outsiders — men – control all the power and money. These women must weave their way through the psychologically damaging malaise underlying Germany’s economic boom. Fassbinder filters these portrayals through his view of Hollywood, especially the so-called women’s pictures of the 1940s and 50s. He idolizes directors like Douglas Sirk and Joseph L Mankiewicz and wants to be their modern, German equivalent, giving his films melodramatic titles like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and [The Longing of] Veronika Voss.

A retrospective of his work, Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, presented by the Goethe Institute and TIFF Cinematheque, is on now through the end of the year. I’m looking at three of his “women’s pictures”, great movies from the end of his career, known as his BRD (Bundesrepublik) Trilogy. Though made in the late 1970s – early 80s, they all take place in the 1940s-50s.

There’s a woman married to money, another to the silver screen, and a third to a man she never sees.

204_image-1The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) (Die Ehe der Maria Braun)

It’s Germany just after WWII. Maria Braun (Hanna Schygulla) is in a fix. She was married beneath a portrait of Adolph Hitler, as American bombs fell all around her. Three weeks of love, and one night of marital bliss… then husband Hermann was sent back to the Russian front. Now with her husband presumed dead she has to feed herself. But she refuses to call herself a widow. She parades the streets each day with a cardboard sign asking “Where is my husband Hermann Braun?”

Her city is a mess of rubble, rubbish and holes in walls. Well-fed GIs are the only ones with money, while locals subsist on turnips and porridge. Maria is forced to take a job at the Moonlight Bar, a beer hall for US soldiers.

There she meets an African-American GI and falls in love. Their relationship progresses from dancing, to picnics, to English lessons, to sex. But they are interrupted in flagrante delecto by Hermann, back from the war. He beats her up and she, in turn, slams a glass bottle… not at her husband’s head, but at her lover’s, killing him instantly. Hermann takes the fall and goes to jail, while Maria vows to achieve financial success for both of them. The film chronicles her quick rise to power at a French nylon stocking conglomerate. She sleeps with the CEO — just like with the GI — but her heart remains true to her husband. But can he be trusted?

This is a great, though cynical, look at postwar Germany, as seen by the ambitious, but manipulated, Maria Braun. (Not a spoiler, but it does have an explosive ending!) This fantastic and surprising film was Fassbinders first international hit — it played in NY City for over a year.

206_image-1Lola (1981) 

It’s 1957. The leading citizens of small-town Bavaria are planning a new development: Lindenhof. It will make them all filthy rich. Protesters picket daily on the street and their plans are clearly fraudulent, but, with the government, business and police all on the take, nothing can go wrong.

In walks the new building inspector, Mr von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl). He says he wants to usher in a new city in tune with the German Economic Miracle. He’s both modern and old-fashioned – modern at work, old fashioned at home. He owns a Ming vase and loves children, East Prussians and Frisian tea. And he is a stickler who carefully reads every blueprint, invoice and form. He is “incorruptible”.

When he falls under the influence of a leftist poseur, he vows to confront the “birds of prey” behind this venture. Head vulture? The nouveau riche developer Schukert (Mario Adorf). He’s the local Donald Trump. He’s married to an older woman, but spends most of his time with his mistress Lola (Barbara Sukowa). Lola is a fiery film_203w_brd_originalcabaret performer and sex worker at the town brothel. She decides to seduce von Bohm in order to guarantee economic success for herself and her daughter. But who will triumph – the hero von Bohm, or all of the corrupt conspirators?

Lola is a deeply cynical film… but with an oddly happy ending. It decries the corruption, on both the left and the right, and the ordinary people crushed by the wheels of progress. But then the film shrugs its shoulders at the unavoidable results of modernity.

Lola is another great film, a dark satire, lit with phenomenally intense day-glo colours whose pink, aqua and acid green will sear your eyeballs.

veronikavossVeronica Voss (1981) (Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss)

It’s the 1950s in Munich. Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) is a faded movie actress who once starred in films at UFA, the mammoth German movie studio. She still sits in theatres, staring at herself on the screen. One rainy evening, she runs into a man named Robert Krohl (Hilmar Thate). He gallantly offers her his umbrella, and walks her to the streetcar. Robert is a sports writer, gruff and burly, who knows nothing about movie stars. He happily lives with his lover, Henriette, and secretly writes poetry in his spare time.

But when she asks him for a drink, he is captivated by her larger-than-life personality. She poses and preens, acts impulsively, switching in seconds from elation, depression to agony. Movies, she says, are all about shadow and light, and she demands the waiter adjust the light to make her look better. Robert is smitten. He traces her steps to a neurological clinic, a spotless white office run by a Frau Doktor Katz (Annemarie Düringer). She’s a pretty but severe doctor who offers Veronika friendship (and morphine!) in exchange for complete domination of her life. Can Robert rescue Veronika from the lesbian doctor’s clutches before she is forever lost? Or is she already lost to drugs, and just a flickering image of the star she once was?

Veronika Voss is fantastic melodrama in the style of 30s films and 40s noir with an incredibly shiny, shadowy, black-and-white look.

Fassbinder died of a drug overdose at age 36, not long after this film’s release.

Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder is playing at TIFF until late December. Go to tiff.net for details. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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